Playing BINGO in Napa
By Kathleen Reynolds
The woman can hear the beating of her heart as she waits for the man to speak. She feels the thrill of pending fulfillment. She shouts with all her might, “BINGO!”
This scenario and others like it play out every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening at the Bingo Emporium at Zinfandel Hall at the Napa Expo, which during the fair is the Bunny House. The groups who run Bingo to raise funds for kids’ programs rent the hall from the Napa Valley Expo.
“It all supports kids in Napa,” says Denise Parks, the general manager of the Saturday night games. “Friday profits go to Napa United Soccer; Saturday is for Napa High Band Boosters, and Sunday goes to the Vintage High Music Boosters. The monies from Saturday nights pay for things like instrument purchase and repairs, buses to out of town events and uniforms.
It also funds tour scholarships when the band travels and end-of-the-year scholarships for high school seniors. People don’t realize how expensive these things are. When the band was invited to play at a game at Cal Berkeley, the bus cost was $3,000. When Napa High changed their mascot, the school paid a portion of the cost to replace part of the band’s uniforms. The Boosters were responsible for the rest of the cost.”
“We usually have about 70 to 90 players,” she says. “We often have more people for special events. For instance, this past New Year’s Eve, 120 people braved the rain and cold.”
Denise, who is an accounting clerk in her professional life, says her group holds special events throughout the year that include complimentary dinners, drawings for prizes and high payout games.
Regular Bingo nights start at $25 per person for 18 games, which pay winners $250-$400. With a $40 buy-in, the Turbo machine is included, which easily plays 72 more cards for players with the push of a button. Then there’s Flash, games of chance that sell for $1 each, which are like California Scratchers. The winnings for these games range from $100-$1,199. Friday games start at 6:30 pm, Saturday games begin at 6:15 pm, and Sunday starts at 4 pm.
Volunteer workers love the atmosphere and the people.
“I began volunteering while my daughter was in band and, even though she graduated in 2019, I kept helping,” says Denise.
Heather Watson-Troedson, a 6th grade teacher at Browns Valley School, began volunteering several years ago. “I’d never played Bingo and it seemed mysterious. But I knew it was a major funding opportunity for the Napa High Instrumental Music Program when my son started in the 9th grade. Even though my child graduated and is no longer in the program, we enjoy it and have fun. My husband and I volunteer on a regular basis on Saturday nights. I started by selling Flash and now work in different positions. My husband is often one of the Callers on the stand announcing the numbers.”
“We like to go because of the community camaraderie,” says Heather. “These are dedicated people who are happy to support the kids. When people win, they often choose to give a donation back to the program. The die-hards would go through sleet and hail to play.”
“Napa High Band Bingo is truly blessed to have a core group of seasoned volunteers who support our program; some of these individuals are Alumni, while others have no connections with Napa High,” says Denise. “Within our parent base, we also have amazing individuals who sign up and volunteer to keep our Bingo fundraiser successful and running. We are all working to make a difference for our students and program needs.”
Superstitions have a high priority with many players.
“They want the Flash that’s fifth from the bottom, or third from the top, or only from loose packs,” Heather explains. “Many have tchotchkes or lucky items around them when they play.
They may have a special spot to sit, or they only play specific games.”
“Mainly they come for the friendships they make playing and have been coming for 20 years. They check in with each other. The doors open at 3 pm on Saturdays, so there’s a lot of social time for visiting and catching up on the week.”
“One reason my husband and I still volunteer for Bingo is because of the diverse group of players we have come to know, and it makes for an enjoyable evening. We truly have fun; it’s our Date Night.”
There is no alcohol or smoking. Vintage hall is divided into North and South halls, one of which was used when smoking was allowed, but now smokers go outside. A café called B Spot opened last October, run by Tim Brown, who has worked in restaurants throughout Napa Valley.
“The food is really good and at a reasonable price,” Heather says. “Before the café opened, we used to have a food truck or sell pizza by the slice. Players are allowed to bring in their own food, too.”
The age range of players is across the board, from 30 to 90. Often, a player’s birthday is celebrated with cake, festive tablecloths and decorations provided by their friends.
Some veteran players tape together Bingo papers, so they play six to eight cards at the same time.
Depending on the game, seasoned players have a system in their head. “It’s all about patterns,” says Heather. “You must make sure you’re looking at your cards and paying attention as you’re dabbing the numbers to see if you have a Bingo. When I’ve played, I don’t go overboard, my speed is four cards.”
Between the basic buy-in, the Turbo machine, Flash and specific games, how does a newcomer keep it all straight?
Denise chuckles. “New players are given a sheet that is an introduction to Bingo Lingo. It does sound complicated and can get a bit confusing with terms like Hot Ball, Drum Major, Jackpot and Wild Numbers. Our workers spot the new people and stop by as often as they can to answer questions. Our other players are generous and help the new players around them. Once you’ve played a couple of times, it gets easier.”
“Napa High Band Bingo started in 1983, so this year we’re celebrating 40 years,” says Denise. “We will have a special event on May 6 with dinner, drawings and lots of winnings.”
She says their biggest challenge is that many people don’t know that there’s a Bingo Emporium in Napa. “They think they must go out of town to play. That’s not the case. We need to spread the word.”
Denise says there are a lot of reasons people like playing Bingo. “It’s the excitement, especially when you’re close to winning. It’s full of energy. Of course, they’re happy when they win. I’d encourage everyone to try it. Come here to be with friends, relax and get something from the café. If you win, it’s a bonus. If not, at least you’re not sitting at home staring at the TV.”